Osama Bin Laden – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 “Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/#comments Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17398 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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Spaces of Speculation: How We Learned Osama Bin Laden Was Dead http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/05/02/spaces-of-speculation-how-we-learned-osama-bin-laden-was-dead/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/05/02/spaces-of-speculation-how-we-learned-osama-bin-laden-was-dead/#comments Mon, 02 May 2011 05:24:52 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=9229 At around 10pm on the east coast on Sunday May 1st, 2011, news broke online that President Barack Obama would address the nation at 10:30pm. This news surprised the American public, but it also surprised the press: they had been told earlier in the day that there would be no more appearances by the President, which meant that most of the press corps were rushing back to the White House to report on…something.

That uncertainty became a fascinating exercise in media speculation, taking place within both traditional and social media outlets. While speculation is prevalent and even natural within social media, traditional media did everything within their power to avoid such speculation; this contrast played out in the television coverage of what was eventually revealed to be the death of Osama Bin Laden in an operation led by American forces in Pakistan.

On Twitter, speculation began immediately: as soon as the pending speech was announced, my Twitter stream – and I presume most Twitter streams – exploded with predictions on what the news might involve (which included both real speculation and discussion of aliens and zombies). Social networks like Twitter are built for this kind of uncertainty, able to offer a sense of community for an announcement that fostered both interest and concern during its early moments given its sudden nature.

By comparison, while networks like CNN and MSNBC went to live coverage of the events as soon as possible, their coverage actively resisted – or at least tried to resist – any form of speculation. I was tuned into MSNBC, and watched a fascinating dance with actual news reporting. The anchors consistently emphasized that they were not speculating, even as they participated in what to my mind was speculation (such as presuming it dealt with something overseas). On CNN, meanwhile, Wolf Blitzer said that he had his own educated opinion on what the announcement was about, but he refused to reveal it to the audience (resulting in much frustration among those livetweeting the CNN broadcast).

Of course, as MSNBC was “not speculating,” Twitter was alight with actual reporting: while the actual timeline is nearly impossible to pin down, reports that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and his body recovered began to break on Twitter around 10:30pm. Two early tweets came from two different sources: the earliest I’ve found was from Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for Fmr. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who reported this news based on word from “a reputable person,” while the first media-related tweet came from CBS News Capitol Hill producer Jill Jackson based on word from a House Intelligence committee aide. These (and others) began to spread among other reporters and other news outlets, but only on Twitter.

On television, at least on MSNBC, the challenge of reporting in the digital age was on display for all to see. Mike Viqueira was live on the air trying to avoid saying anything concrete when he appeared to be handed a note, a note we presumed would include the news that we had learned ten minutes before on Twitter. However, while Viqueira initially suggested that he saw no reason not to announce this piece of news, others seemed to disagree: he was stopped in his tracks, silenced briefly while producers tried to decide how to proceed. About fifteen seconds later, they settled on revealing that the announcement would involve “a grave and serious CIA operation” – Viquiera then asked his off-screen producer if he could say it was overseas, as if the audience at home could not hear this question and learn this piece of information.

Viquiera was eventually replaced by David Gregory, who was authorized to reveal that the news involved Osama Bin Laden, but those early moments reflect the level of caution still prevalent within the media regarding Twitter and other forms of social media. I would normally applaud their caution, but there was something very strange about seeing my Twitter feed flooding with what seemed like fairly legitimate sources while MSNBC and CNN acted as if they still had no idea what was going on. And with the camera turned on Viquiera as he received that note, we saw a journalist weighing the nature of the source and the ethics of reporting it live on our television screens while other reporters were sharing this same information widely.

This evening was obviously more important than this brief moment of uncertainty: the real meaning was in President Obama’s speech, and the spontaneous gathering outside of the White House and at Ground Zero to celebrate this news, and the media discourse which emerged after confirmation was received. I am hopeful that other contributors will be offering analysis of these elements in the days ahead here at Antenna and elsewhere.

However, in this speculation we are able to see both the growing presence of social media and the traditional media’s tentative engagement with the form, as well as one of the first events of this magnitude that has taken place squarely within the Twitter era. While we will all likely remember where we were when we heard this historical news, for many the question of who we learned it from is somewhat less clear: while I learned about September 11th from a high school classmate as we walked to class after our lunch break, I learned about Osama Bin Laden’s death from an endless number of mostly anonymous individuals broadcasting news that was probably ten times removed from its original source.

It is likely much too early to properly historicize what impact Twitter might have had on how we experienced this piece of news, but it feels like an important and potentially ephemeral element of this historical moment.


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